Emma Sulkowicz is a senior visual arts student at Columbia University. On the first day of her sophomore year, she says, she was raped by a classmate on her mattress.
"Rape can happen anywhere," she explains in the video above. "For me, I was raped in my own dorm bed. Since then, it has basically become fraught for me, and I feel like I've carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then."
Sulkowicz' senior thesis, titled "Mattress Performance" or "Carry That Weight," is a literal expression of that emotional weight. In what she calls an endurance art piece, she will drag her mattress everywhere she goes on campus until her rapist is expelled or leaves. The project, she says, could extend for one day or for the entire remainder of her time at Columbia.
"The past year or so of my life has been really marked by telling people what happened in that most intimate private space and bringing it out into the light," she says. "So I think the act of carrying something that is normally found in our bedroom out into the light is supposed to mirror the way I've talked to the media and talked to different news channels, etc."
When Sulkowicz's case made it to a university hearing seven months after the actual incident occurred, administrators were confused about how anal rape could happen and she had to draw a diagram. The experience left her feeling physically ill.
Two other women came forward to say they had been assaulted by the same student, but all believe their cases were mishandled, in part by mistake-riddled record-keeping on the part of university authorities (note: aliases were used in early reporting on the case to protect the identity of those involved).
Their alleged attacker was found not responsible by the university, and remains at the school.
"I was so naive that I guess I thought they would just believe me because I was telling the truth," Sulkowicz told The Huffington Post in February. "I didn't expect the school was going to try to not take my side."
Sulkowicz was one of 23 students who filed a federal complaint against Columbia for mishandling sexual assault cases, in violation of the gender equity law Title IX. The U.S. Department of Education has yet to determine whether it will investigate the university.
"Carry That Weight" is especially powerful protest against injustice, while also forcing her community to face the emotional and physical trauma of sexual assault. While one of her rules for the performance is that she can't ask for help carrying it around, Sulkowicz said others are allowed to offer their help.
"I'm hoping that not only do I get better at carrying the mattress, but... I'm very interested in seeing where this piece goes and what sort of life it takes on," she says.
Additional reporting by Tyler Kingkade.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.